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'Shalom, Y'All': Welcome to Israeli Dude Ranch

June 18, 1989|BENJAMIN BYCEL | Bycel is a lawyer and free-lance writer living in Santa Barbara.

TIBERIAS, Israel — We had climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea, prayed at the Wailing Wall, traced the steps of Jesus and touched Mohammed's rock.

We had "done" Israel, like millions of other tourists before us, and we were exhausted. We had a few days left on our family vacation and wanted to do something different and restful.

"It can't be another museum or ancient ruin," our teen-ager said. We agreed.

We consulted an Israeli friend who is a travel agent. "I have just the thing for you," she said, "a dude ranch in the Galilee."

The children's ears perked up. "Do they have horseback riding?"

"The best in Israel, and they serve American food," she said.

My wife and I looked at each other. Did we really come 7,000 miles to go horseback riding in Israel? Why not, the children argued.

North to Nazareth

We were on our way. From Jerusalem we traveled north through Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. About 15 miles north of Tiberias, 40 miles from the Lebanon border, we found Vered Hagalil.

"Shalom, Y'All" read the sign above the reception desk in the rustic main lodge that looks as if it was transplanted from Wyoming.

Vered Hagalil, which means Rose of Galilee, was built by American-born Yehuda Avni, who came here from Chicago in the late 1940s, married an Israeli woman and decided to stay.

His wife, Yonah, runs the reception desk and restaurant. Yehuda oversees the stables and the grounds. From the moment a guest arrives, both seem to be everywhere, ready to help in any way they can. It seems comfortable to call them by their first names after only being there a few hours.

The accommodations at the ranch are comfortable and reasonable. Four of us stayed in one of the roomy wood and stone cottages for about $85 U.S., which included an American-style breakfast.

There is also a bunk house that sleeps 12.

Popular Retreat

Because it is a popular retreat for urban Israelis and there are only a dozen or so cottages, the ranch is often booked weeks in advance.

Yehuda and Yonah added a pool a few years ago, and may soon have a tennis court. But the main attractions are horseback riding and eating.

Because no one in our family had much experience with horses, we did more eating than riding. The restaurant specializes in American food, something we were all hungry for after two weeks in the Middle East.

There are no falafel. The fare includes steak, fried chicken served in a basket with fries, fresh trout and delicious lemon meringue pie.

For breakfast they serve the best pancakes in Israel. The restaurant is open to the public and is usually filled with Israelis who have dropped in to eat "American."

In order to work off some of our added pounds, we tried the horseback riding. Yehuda was very patient with us tenderfoots, calming our nerves and finding just the right horse for us.

"How do you say 'Whoa' in Hebrew?" I asked. Yehuda explained that all the beautiful Arabians were bilingual.

Yehuda will tailor a ride to fit a need, from one hour to a week. Prices are $12 an hour, $35 half day and $55 for a day. There is a special six-day riding package for $100 a day, including room and board.

Easy Ride

We took one of the easy rides through nearby hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Our guide was a young Israeli, David, who, except that he spoke Hebrew, acted and dressed like a Western wrangler.

Longer rides are to the rich, green Hula Valley, down to the River Jordan, up to the Golan Heights or to the site where Jesus is said to have given the Sermon on the Mount.

The only drawback to our stay at Vered Hagalil was that Yehuda does not allow children under 13 to ride on the trails. He does, however, provide a large corral that the children can ride in for an hour or so. Lessons also are available.

When it was time to leave, we agreed that we would come back someday, eat less and take the ride Yehuda describes in the ranch brochure.

"When a tiny black spot in the distance becomes a Bedouin tent where you're welcomed to dismount and have coffee; when you ride through the vineyards overlooking the sky-blue Sea of Galilee and you suddenly understand why the Sermon on the Mount was given here . . . well, then you know you're visiting the Galilee as it should be visited . . . on horseback."

For more information, contact Yehuda Avni, c/o Vered Hagalil, Mobile P.O. Box, Korozin, Israel 12385.

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